Nearly 500 youngsters from around the world are getting a close-up view of the Olympics at the Olympic Youth Camp, which got underway in Beijing Wednesday. Mike O'Sullivan reports, the camp uses sports to build bridges between cultures.

The students, most aged 16 to 18, came from more than 200 countries and territories to experience the Olympic spirit firsthand. 

Former Olympic chief Juan Antonio Samaranch was here for the opening Wednesday, on the sprawling campus of a Beijing middle school.

This is the largest Olympic youth camp ever, and it has the greatest age range.  The youngest participant is a 12-year-old Iraqi boy and the oldest is 28.   This is also the first camp to include disabled youngsters.  Ten are taking part this year.

The camp program was started at the Stockholm Olympics in 1912, and has been a regular part of the Olympiad since the Tokyo games in 1964.

Participants arrived from all around China and from every continent to take part in recreational sports such as soccer and tennis, to watch Olympic competitions and meet new friends. 

Most are seeing China for the first time.   Norbert Bonnici, an 18-year-old from Malta, is struck with China's size and Beijing's towering skyline.

"It's a very large country.  It's got a lot of skyscrapers.  In Malta, we only have three," he said.

Beijing is showcasing its growth, and Bulgarian student Monica Minecheva was awed by the sights of the city.

"Yesterday, we went to walk and I love the streets and city lights, so beautiful," she said.

Detyange Vanesse and her friend, both from Ivory Coast, are also impressed with what they've seen so far.

"I like Beijing," she said. "The welcome was warm. We are having fun. They [the locals] are hospitable, always smiling. There are lots of activities, games and everything. And the food is good, friends as well. It's nice."

Carolina Castelli of Uruguay says she is thrilled to be here.

"It's really amazing because I never imagined being in the Olympics and here meeting 400 young people from all over the world, and also it's in China, so it's more amazing for me, too," she said.

Olympic athletes are aiming for gold medals.  Norbert Bonnici has his own Olympic hopes.

"Get many friends from different countries, and maybe learn Chinese," he said.

These students say that beyond the excitement of Olympic competition, the games are about building bridges between people, and they plan to build some themselves.